Power to the Patient: Making the Most of Your Annual Checkup

This piece was co-authored by Aly Keller.

See Your Doctor. Stay Healthy.

Every plan covers preventive care, which means you can go get your annual checkup for free (no copay or coinsurance!).

The Lingo

Checkups go by different names: a physical, an annual, a checkup, a health maintenance visit, a preventive care visit, or just ‘catchin’ up with the doc.’

What happens at a checkup?

Typically, your doctor will:

  • Take a History: You’ll get asked about medical problems, medicines, social, /lifestyle habits.
    • Pro tip: this part usually takes the longest if you’re a new patient to the clinic.
  • Do a physical: height, weight, blood pressures, listening to the heart and lungs
  • Order labs and imaging. (Feeling healthy and wondering why this matters? Read on.)
  • Assess your health
  • Make a plan

For more details about this list, give Web MD’s guide a read.

Checkups are also a great opportunity to work with your doctor on managing any diseases or medical conditions you may already have.

What’s the point?

If you’re young, healthy, and don’t have any conditions, is a check-up worth it? We think so. Here are some benefits of meeting up with your doctor once a year:

  • Screening tests: These are medical tests that help look for diseases before you have any symptoms. Doctors can screen for things like diabetes and different kinds of cancers. Just like you can’t feel high blood pressure, you can’t feel when you have high cholesterol (until its too late!). If you catch a problem before it gets serious, managing the disease can be much easier. If your doctor doesn’t find anything concerning, you leave with peace of mind.
    • For young’ns: you might get a screening test for cholesterol if you have high blood pressure or heart disease in your family.
    • For women: it might be time to get a pap smear--the most effective screening test ever developed for catching and treating cervical cancer.
  • Vaccines: If you’re not up to date on all your vaccines, annual checkups are the time to get them. Did you know you have to get a Tetanus booster every 10 years?
  • Prescription Refills: Take a regular prescription like birth control? A lot of doctors require an annual check-in before renewing your prescription for another year.
  • Counseling: Checkups are the perfect time to get advice on any health concerns you may have.
  • Strengthen your doctor-patient relationship: Building a great relationship with your doctor can help you get better care. You’ll feel more comfortable asking questions. Your doctor will be more aware of your concerns, conditions, and history. Together, you can work to stay extra healthy!

How do I make the most of my visit?

  • Ask your doctor all the things. Talk to your doctor about why he/she is conducting a certain test. The more informed you are about your health, the more empowered you’ll be as a patient! Learn more about the power of asking health questions here.
    • Pro-tip: Some clinics might ask you to tell them your ‘chief complaint.’ If you’ve got more than one concern, take a list with you and give it to the nurse before you get seen by the doctor.
  • Make sure tests are routine. Many extra tests are considered diagnostic, so you’ll be charged for them. Before your doctor wants to run a test, ask him/her if it’s considered preventive or not.
  • Get the scoop on “ancillary services". Did a health issue come up during your visit? Your doctor’s office may offer extra services like diagnostic lab tests, physical therapy, chiropractic/massage services, and more, that may help you take next steps in managing your health.
  • Be prepared for a different doctor. Someone a new doctor may be filling in for your usual Primary Care Physician.
  • Get ready for redundant questions. If your visit is with a new doctor, they may go over questions you’ve already answered for your usual doc in the past. Also, the nurse practitioner and doctor may go over the same topics more than once; this is because your doctor is trying to best determine which conditions or issues he should suspect, test, and treat for.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Doctor visits that are diagnostic—meaning you already have symptoms and need a diagnosis—are not free.
  • The doctor you see must be in-network for it to be covered.
  • Extra tests or follow-up visits are considered diagnostic, not preventive, so you'll be charged for those. If you go get your annual physical and your doctor runs a non-routine test, you'll have to pay for it (we know, super cool).